How we grow up stays with us for the rest of our lives. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst uncovering deep-seated issues with your mother, father, or childhood to shine the light on some simple, basic causalities for who you are. Genes don’t create determination; genes evoke predisposition and proclivity. Environment, activity – these things form habits. And habits, by and large, make up much of what we are.
Being around people sometimes makes me feel lonely. This is probably because when I was growing up, my stepfather’s family was very different from me. I liked to write and draw while they liked to make haybale forts and ride ATVs. At gatherings, I preferred to stay by myself; interaction always just seemed to reinforce my difference from them, and made me feel alone.
We are always struggling against some habit or another. It doesn’t take intense behavioral analysis to understand when someone is trying to break a pattern, or establish a new and healthy routine. We think habitually as well as act habitually, because our thoughts precede our actions, even when we are conditioned. We may do something more and more automatically, but our brain is still emitting the electronic and chemical signals to get us to do what we do. So we’re always in a process of re-training our minds. Recent studies have shown the brain to retain more plasticity throughout aging than was the previous understanding, and so there’s hope for an older dog learning new tricks after all.
The idea that we will control ourselves genetically as we head into the future is probably an inevitability. The potential problem is that while we may preempt congenital maladies or even be able to retrofit ourselves with better, or “therapized” genes to correct some problem within us, we must remember that the nurture is as important – if not more important in terms of development – than the nature.
If a would-be child born with a heart defect in today’s world is born with no such congenital anomaly in the future world, either because that gene is selected out (which means killing off the early versions of that person as he / she develops in the womb, for one thing) or that gene is, perhaps more humanely, therapized out sometime later by technology allowing us to reconfigure the very way genetic molecules arrange information, there is still the all-important issue of how that child is raised. No matter how smart, how strong, how fast, how pretty we may pre-select or rearrange our offspring to be, we still have the monumental task of raising them right. And, if you look at it in a certain way, there may be even more responsibility involved when raising a genetically superior child.
Think of it this way. I began by talking about how, as an adult, I still struggle with social situations and sometimes feel lonely around people because, very likely, of how I grew up with a father who was not my genetic progenitor. Yet, my early coping skills developed into expressions of artwork, poetry, prose, and other creative outlets. I’m not always the most extroverted person at the party, but I have a body of work which has grown over the years that I wouldn’t trade for anything. In other words, the imperfection of my being – genetically prepossessed to be a bit of a loner, coupled with the environment of non-biological relatives – were the ingredients which have helped to create the happy, ambitious person I am today.
What of a child born “perfect?” What challenges will they face? Will they be groomed to be a sort of super person, or will a fairly “normal” family raise them under benign circumstances? What might they struggle against that forges the character and strength they will rely on in their adulthood? Will things come too easy? Will there be extra expectation and an overbearingness that leads to avoidant behavior, issue with authority and general rebelliousness and irresponsibility?
It’s at least an interesting idea, maybe one that will find its way into numerous books and movies, how these “perfect” beings born in our potential future face as many challenges as the “imperfect” ones of today. They may be guaranteed a greater chance at longevity based on more reliable organs and blood cells, but they are given no such guarantee for the quality of their lives.
It’s true (statistically, anyway) that better-looking people get lighter sentences when facing the judge, or that star athletes are often able to parlay their careers into public speaking or write a best-selling memoir. But we’re not talking about getting out of traffic tickets or spending a life built out of a great sports moment as the mark of success and health. Challenge and adversity are the most fertile grounds to spring success and health. It is an age-old aphorism that talent and genius are more often squandered, and that persistence and diligence are the hallmarks of success. Will that change when we have a world of genetically flawless beings? Can we breed in a sort of “persistence” gene that guarantees to bear good fruit, or will our abrogations remove the very stuff of greatness?
Historically, it is the underdog who builds an empire. Whether you endorse that empire or not, most mega-success stories begin with humble beginnings, tales of school drop-outs and working class kids like Ray Kroc or Carl Karcher who build fortunes. Or, if it’s not the underdog story, it’s one of early advantages, like Bill Gates proximity to MIT labs or Oppenheimer’s political connections. Similarly, early negative experiences can greatly influence a life, such as the case of Chris Langan, a man with a 150 IQ who, after growing up with an abusive father, lacked the people skills to complete college and now runs a farm in the Midwest. Early environment is everything, laying the foundation which we build our lives upon, positive or negative childhood experiences weaving their way into our thought processes, our unconscious self, from where much of our behavior springs.
So, let’s say we wind up with this sort of genetic engineering in the next thirty or forty years – where will it take us? Will we be duped into thinking that genes are the primary precursors to a healthy, happy life and so de-emphasize the importance of nurturing, environment and spirituality?
The questions I pose have little to do with religious implication, but are from a behavioral, sociological point of view. It simply remains unanswered in my mind: Will these kind of bio-technical “advances” in human life actually advance us at all? Or should we look to time-tested wisdom, that the source of happiness and health comes from a reconciled spirit, a good home life, and plenty of love? Because I know it can induce a gag-reflex, this thing called love, especially where it seems to have no place in science but perhaps an electrochemical phenomenon, one has to admit, when we talk about things like artificial intelligence, about a thinking universe, where is it? When we go on about knowledge knowledge knowledge and information information information, when we talk about biotechnology and better living through chemistry, one only has to look around, flip to the next page, the one before it, or listen to the dissertations and wonder – where is love ever mentioned?